10 Nonpartisan Organizations to Watch in 2020
There are hundreds, literally hundreds of organizations and individual campaigns working right now to fix the myriad of problems that face our political and electoral processes -- from the local to the national levels. The organizations tackle voter rights, primary election reform, ballot access, gerrymandering reform, campaign finance reform, alternative voting methods, electing candidates outside the two major parties, and more.
The following are 10 of the biggest organizations working to reform elections and give voters more choice at the ballot box in 2020:
1. Independent Voter Project
Independent Voter Project (IVP) is the founder and co-publisher of IVN. I know… self-promotion, right?
But seriously, IVP has successfully passed every statewide and local election reform campaign it has led.
IVP wrote the nonpartisan top-two open primary in California, which was approved by voters under Proposition 14 (2010). This faced opposition from both major parties, but was defeated by record-setting turnout from independent voters.
The organization also started a series of reforms in San Diego when it authored and submitted a reform that removed a simple loophole that allowed incumbent candidates to get elected in a primary and skip the general election altogether. Both the citywide (Measures K, 2016) and countywide (Measure D, 2018) passed with around 60% of the vote.
It is also worth mentioning that San Diego has more voters than many states.
On the legal side, IVP -- leading a nonpartisan coalition of individual plaintiffs and organizations -- challenged New Jersey’s closed primary process in federal court in 2014, making a pretty simple argument: you shouldn’t have to join a party to vote.
The case was dismissed by a federal district court and the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, ruling that voters do not have a fundamental right to vote in primary elections in New Jersey until they join a party. No, seriously, that was the ruling. Read it for yourself.
The case has been filed with the Supreme Court.
Currently, millions of California voters have to navigate a complex and restrictive semi-closed presidential primary process that caused widespread confusion, frustration, and disenfranchisement in the 2016 presidential primaries.
This includes more than 5.6 million voters who are registered No Party Preference. They can only request a party ballot if the party allows them to. Then, there are the half a million voters who are mostly registered with a third party -- the American Independent Party -- by mistake.
Since they are registered with a third party they cannot express their preference for a Democratic or Republican presidential candidate.
The Independent Voter Project warned the California secretary of state well ahead of the 2016 presidential primary that the current system is not only in conflict with the state constitution, but will lead to more and more problems as voters choose not to affiliate with any political party.
Independent Voter sponsored a resolution in 2016 that offered a simple solution: Add a public ballot option to the presidential primary. This would allow voters who could not or didn’t want to vote on a party’s ballot to express their preference for any presidential candidate, regardless of party.
The parties could then decide whether or not to include these votes in their delegate selection process.
The Independent Voter Project is currently exploring its legislative and legal options to open presidential primaries to independent voters in 2020. There may even be a lawsuit in the works.
IVP has also just launched a new website, where readers can find the latest updates about what the organization is doing.
RepresentUs is the largest organization in the United States that seeks to grow and empower an anti-corruption movement.
“We bring together conservatives, progressives, and everyone in between to pass powerful anti-corruption laws that stop political bribery, end secret money, and fix our broken elections,” RepresentUs states on its website.
It used its resources in 2018 to support, promote, and/or raise awareness of dozens of political and election reform measures across the country, including anti-corruption proposals, ranked choice voting reform, anti-gerrymandering initiatives, and more.
RepresentUs also recently launched an online community powered by Discord to connect volunteers and members to interact with each other, learn about the issues, and discuss future efforts headed into 2020 and beyond.
In February 2019, RepresentUs launched a 12-minute short film with actress Jennifer Lawrence titled, Unbreaking America. The group describes the film as part civics lesson, part call to action as America is in the midst of a growing political crisis that is getting out of control.
“The government is ours, we pay for it, so it needs to work for us,” Lawrence says.
RepresentUs says that no nonviolent civil resistance campaigns failed once they achieved active and sustained participation from 3.5% of the U.S. population. The group launched the Unbreaking America campaign to enlist the 3.5% -- approximately 11 million Americans -- to watch, share, and engage with the video.
RepresentUs members plan to tour the country to premiere the short film and host discussion sessions, with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Washington DC, and more.
Unrig The System
The 2018 Unrig the System Summit in New Orleans was a historic gathering of nonpartisan reformers and concerned citizens to discuss solutions to the ongoing and growing crisis in US politics.
“The summit is an effort to bring together everybody across the country who is working to make American politics work for ‘We, the People,” says RepresentUs Director Josh Silver.
The 2018 event drew 1,500 attendees, and featured not only prominent leaders in the reform community, but former and current members of Congress, key government watchdog organizations, and entertainers to give people a fun experience while also addressing the myriad of problems plaguing the US political system.
RepresentUs hopes to grow the attendance number and expand on the successes of the first event during the 2019 Unrig the System Summit in Nashville, Tennessee. Thought leaders, industry experts, activists, journalists, actors, musicians, and comedians are coming together for a 3-day event that aims to create a better future for America.
Check out my podcast with Silver for the full details on this event:
To find out more about RepresentUs and what the organization is working on, visit its website here.
Also Worth Mentioning...
One of the organizations speaking at Unrig that could have a major impact in 2020 is New Politics. The organization was founded in 2013 with the stated goal of encouraging people with a background of service to run for office (e.g. military veterans and alumni from groups like Americorps and the Peace Corps).
New Politics began with founder Emily Cherniack’s own experience in the political industry, serving as deputy campaign manager for her then-boss and mentor Alan Khazei’s US Senate campaign in 2009. Cherniack came to the conclusion that the current system for recruiting political talent was broken. Specifically, the “talent pipeline” has significant and intentionally placed barriers that prevent “transformation leaders from being successful.”
New Politics seeks to change this so that a new generation of political leadership can emerge and transform the political landscape.
"Trust in government is at an all-time low. Americans want to move past the partisanship that is gridlocking decision-making in Washington. To do that, we need elected officials who have the proven leadership skills to put party politics aside, put country over party and work together, and rebuild trust in government,” says Chernlack.
“When you serve in the military or through programs like CityYear or Teach for America, you learn how to focus on solutions, lead diverse teams, and, most importantly, serve something larger than yourself. They have put the country first in the past, and will do it again in the political arena. Now, we are seeing an upswing in service members looking to get involved in the complicated, often confusing political process, and New Politics serves as a crucial and trusted adviser lowering the barrier to entry and helping them navigate the landscape."
The organization’s success stories and partnerships include recruiting and electing US Rep. Seth Moulton (Mass.), a former Marine Corps officer, and supporting the candidacies of newly-elected US Reps. Mikie Sherrill (N.J.), a former Navy helicopter pilot, Chrissy Houlahan, a former Air Force officer, Jason Crow (Colo.), a former Army Ranger, Mike Gallagher (Wis.), a Marine veteran, and Max Rose (N.Y.), who served as a platoon leader in the US army.
"New Politics is in a phase of growth following a successful 2018 midterm cycle where we served as trusted advisers to 20 congressional candidates and 30 down-ballot candidates. We are deepening our support of servant leaders seeking to get involved in politics to encompass the full life cycle of veterans and service alumni in the public sphere. They will be able to turn to New Politics from the moment getting involved comes to mind, then stay with us well past Election Day to advance their agenda while in office or cultivate political leadership following a loss.”
“Ultimately, we're building a solid pipeline of strong political leaders with service backgrounds, so that the veteran candidate movement that shaped the 2018 midterms continues into 2020, 2022, and beyond,” she added.
3 and 4. The Chamberlain Project and The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting
Maine continues to be a hotbed in voter empowerment activity. The Chamberlain Project and the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting led the battle in 2016 and 2018 to pass and then defend the state's historic ranked choice voting law.
Admittedly, I cheated a little by adding two separate organizations here. However, Cara McCormick, who works with both groups, says they are "getting our band of happy warriors back together," and are already out the gate with a bill that would expand on Maine's monumental ranked choice voting achievement by extending its use to presidential primaries and the general election.
The two organizations are also working together with their allies on a national strategy, including 8 additional projects to be undertaken in 2019 and 2020.
The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting 2020
Maine Senate Majority Leader Troy Jackson has put forth legislation to change the current presidential caucus system to a primary system, and include the use of ranked choice voting for primaries and the general election.
Kyle Bailey, campaign manager for the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting, told me there is actually several proposed bills to switch from caucuses to a presidential primary, indicating that the proposal has broad support, and he believes that the RCV proposal will see similar support as well.
The current ranked choice voting law entered the mainstream conversation not only because of its historic significance, but because of the rollercoaster ride it went through just to be used in Maine primary and US House and Senate general elections in 2018.
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The legislative fight came down to a Democratically-controlled State House, which largely wanted to preserve the ranked choice voting law approved by voters in 2016, and the Republican-controlled State Senate, which largely wanted full repeal.
Both chambers agreed to a bill that delayed implementation and set ranked choice up for repeal in 2021. The Committee for Ranked Choice Voting launched a people’s veto campaign, gathered enough signatures, and voters voted once again for ranked choice voting in the 2018 primary, this time winning by an 8-point margin.
In 2019, however, the makeup of the legislature is much different. Democrats control both chambers, and the Jackson bill has picked up support RCV didn’t have the first time around, including from Rep. Charlotte Warren (D-Hallowell), who is co-sponsoring the House version of the bill.
With broader support, RCV advocates are optimistic that Maine will make history once again with ranked choice voting for the 2020 presidential election.
Also Worth Noting...
Peter Ackerman chairs both The Chamberlain Project and Level the Playing Field (LPF). Ackerman and LPF are principal plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, its nonpartisan tax status, and its exclusionary rules to keep third party and independent candidates off the public stage.
In short, the CPD is a partnership between the Republican and Democratic Parties to control the national narrative and who gets into the debates. A ruling in the plaintiffs' favor could completely change the landscape of the 2020 presidential election with the potential for new presidential debate rules that do not rely on inaccurate polling thresholds to allow a third candidate to reach the debate stage.
Read more about the lawsuit here.
Also In Maine...
A completely separate campaign, Open Primaries Maine, is lobbying the state legislature to pass LD 211, a bill that would reform the state's primary elections. The bill, introduced by independent state Rep. Kent Ackley, allows independent voters to choose a party's primary ballot without changing their registration. Registered party members, however, would still vote in their party's primary.
The proposal opens primaries to the largest registered voting bloc in Maine. Thirty-five percent of voters are registered “unenrolled.” Yet these voters cannot participate in these taxpayer-funded elections without re-registering with a political party.
Campaign Manager Kaitlin LaCasse is optimistic the open primaries bill will pass the legislature this year. 80% of Maine voters support the effort, and the legislation has independent, Democratic, and Republican cosponsors -- indicating broad support across the political aisle.
The bill must be reviewed by the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee before it goes before state legislators.
To learn more about Open Primaries Maine and this legislative effort, go here.
5. Open Primaries
Open Primaries is one of the leading advocates for open primary election reform in the US. The organization is supporting growing legislative and ballot initiatives to change how primaries are conducted, from Missouri to Florida, from Wyoming to Maine.
"A lot of new players in the reform arena want to ignore the primaries. That’s a mistake. The American people want in. The primaries are where a lot of the action is and they should be open to everyone," says John Opdycke, president of Open Primaries.
Open Primaries is focused on legislative efforts in Maine, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wyoming, and Tennessee. They also support All Voters Vote (see more below) in Florida, who want to implement a nonpartisan, top-two open primary.
[pullout_blockquote quote="A lot of new players in the reform arena want to ignore the primaries. That’s a mistake." author="John Opdycke, President of Open Primaries"]
Open Primaries is working with All Voters Vote as well as Florida Fair and Open Primaries to build support for the proposed initiatives.
On the defense, legislators in Missouri, Wyoming and Tennessee are trying to eliminate the open primary system in their states. Open Primaries reports that Missouri is the most serious threat as legislative leaders push to enact party voter registration with closed primaries and a 6-month registration deadline.
Wyoming Republicans already tried and failed to replace their state’s open primary system with a closed process. Now they are trying to move to a caucus system for presidential elections.
Open Primaries also says it is working to pressure state Democratic and Republican Party organizations to open their presidential primaries in 2020 to unaffiliated voters. The goal, the group says, is to succeed in multiple states and use the effort to build or expand state coalitions to change primary laws via legislative or ballot referendum campaigns.
To learn more about what Open Primaries is working on, visit the organization’s website here.
FairVote is the nation’s leading advocate for ranked choice voting (RCV). It has the most comprehensive information on the voting reform, where it is currently being used, where it is set to be implemented, and where it could be approved next. It also seeks to support the growing network of state and national groups advancing RCV.
The organization led the effort in Santa Fe, New Mexico, to use ranked choice voting in municipal elections a decade after city voters approved its use -- with its success leading to other New Mexico cities acting to use RCV. It also helped promote and raise awareness of the first-in-the-nation law to use ranked choice voting at the state level in Maine.
Ranked choice voting has entered the mainstream as the most popular voting method to replace the choose-one system used in most US jurisdictions. FairVote President and CEO Rob Richie says his organization is “elevating media and communications strategies that will keep raising the national profile of RCV” into 2020 and beyond.
There are several campaigns who either want to follow in Maine’s footsteps and adopt ranked choice voting at the state level, including a promising effort in Massachusetts (see more below), and FairVote staff are devoting their attention to supporting allies in Utah (where several cities may use RCV for the first time with the support of Utah RCV), Hawaii (where RCV bills just passed in the State House and Senate), New Hampshire (where supporters advocate its use for the first-in-the-nation presidential primary), Washington, and Maryland.
At the federal level, FairVote is also sponsoring a comprehensive reform bill that calls for the use of ranked choice voting for congressional primary and general elections, transforms congressional districts to multi-winner districts, requires states to use nonpartisan redistricting commissions, and implements a fair representative rule that would essentially open the door for proportional representation.
FairVote also spearheaded the successful effort to get an amendment in the US House’s omnibus reform bill (HR 1) to make it easier for states to implement and use ranked choice voting. The organization is also working with political parties to include RCV in the presidential nomination process.
To find out more about FairVote and what the organization is working on, visit its website here.
7. Center for Election Science
The Center for Election Science (CES) is committed to finding a better voting system for elections. It’s primary focus is advocating for approval voting, which allows voters to mark as many candidates on the ballot as they want and the candidate with the most votes wins.
In terms of alternative voting methods, it doesn’t get much simpler.
Fargo, North Dakota became the first jurisdiction in the United States to adopt approval voting in 2018, part of the gigantic wave of nonpartisan reform that swept the nation. CES played a crucial role in educating voters about the benefits approval voting could have in local elections.
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CES is anticipating many promising opportunities to expand the use of approval voting in the 2020 election cycle. The organization launched a brand new website in February and was approved for a 3 year, $1.8 million grant by the Open Philanthropy Project to expand its work.
CES Executive Director Aaron Hamlin could not go into details about specific campaigns that will emerge going into 2020. However, he did say they are looking to expand around Fargo, where they have already seen success, and will test the viability of a major city.
Advocates for alternative voting methods, like CES, point to the expansive presidential field in 2020 as an example of why such reform is needed. Several candidates may have enough support to gain delegates at the convention. However, because these candidates are so ideologically similar, they will split the vote, diminishing the individual voter’s voting power and leaving many unrepresented.
Aaron and I discuss the benefits a voting method like approval voting could have on a presidential primary field with over a dozen or more candidates. Listen below:
CES also launched a new website. Find out more information about the organization and what it is working on here.
8. Voter Choice Massachusetts
Ranked choice voting had a historic year in 2018. It was used for the first time by a state for primary and US House and Senate general elections in Maine. RCV has entered the mainstream and its popularity as an alternative voting method continues to grow.
Voter Choice Massachusetts is one of several organizations who want to replicate Mane’s successful passage and implementation of RCV. What sets the organization apart from other state-focused groups is the strength of their grassroots campaign.
The organization is also in a unique position in that it could lead Massachusetts to be the first state to approve ranked choice voting by legislative action. Maine was the first at the ballot box, but passing it in the legislature would be a historic achievement in and of itself.
Voter Choice Massachusetts reports that it has successfully secured the endorsement of 84 of the 200 legislators and they say the number is growing. They are on the verge of securing a majority in the Senate and not far from that threshold in the House.
However, the group’s efforts are not concentrated solely on lobbying as the organization builds support among voters. Voter Choice Massachusetts hosts several events across the state -- including house parties and canvassing -- to educate voters on the benefits of RCV.
Executive Director Adam Friedman says that though there are no official plans to launch a ballot initiative campaign, it is something the organization is prepared to do should the legislature fail to pass a ranked choice voting bill.
Learn more about Voter Choice Massachusetts and get updates on its activities here.
9. All Voters Vote
All Voters Vote wants to end party primaries in Florida. It is proposing two ballot initiatives for 2020 that would replace the state’s closed primary process with a nonpartisan top-two open primary similar to the primaries in California and Washington state.
The initiatives would reform all primary elections except the presidential primary.
“Florida’s current system of excluding the vast majority of voters from participating in most important elections is just wrong. The All Voters Vote initiative will change how we conduct elections ensuring that everyone who is properly registered can cast a ballot in elections that matter,” said attorney Eugene Stearns, who is helping spearhead this effort.
Nearly 3.6 million voters are registered with no party affiliation in Florida. Yet in order to participate in the most crucial stage of the election process, these voters have to affiliate with a political party.
This campaign also follows efforts by Open Primaries and Florida Fair and Open Primaries to get the Florida Constitution Revision Commission to put a nonpartisan primary amendment on the ballot. Though the organizations mobilized thousands of voters to demand the reform from the CRC, the commission rejected the proposal.
“The many voters like me who have refused to associate themselves with one party or the other must be given the same right to participate in elections as those who chose a party affiliation and the State will be far better for listening to those voters,” says businessman Carlos M. de la Cruz, who is also helping lead the effort.
AVV needs to obtain 76,620 petition to get the state Supreme Court to review the proposed ballot measures. Once reviewed, the organization must get 766,200 signatures to place the initiatives on the ballot, and at least 60% of Florida voters must vote yes for the measure to pass.
The threshold for success is high. However, if AVV can get its initiatives on the ballot, it will be during a major presidential election cycle in one of the nation’s biggest battleground states. This generally means greater voter participation, which could increase the chances of success for nonpartisan election reform.
Get all the latest updates on All Voters Vote here.
10. Unite America
Unite America launched in 2018 with an ambitious goal: to elect enough independents to shift the balance of power in several states and in DC away from the Republican and Democratic Parties, and give a voice back to the people.
They call it the fulcrum strategy. It could apply to Congress or a state legislature that is narrowly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Getting just a handful of independent candidates elected can deny both parties a majority, meaning a newly-formed independent caucus would hold the most power to sway legislation and bring both parties to the table to pass long-term solutions.
In 2018, Unite America launched the first-ever national slate of independent candidates, featuring gubernatorial candidates in Alaska, Maine, and Kansas, and US Senate candidates in Maryland and Missouri. State affiliates and partner organizations also endorsed legislative candidates in Colorado, New Mexico, Maine, and Washington state.
Unite America also endorsed candidates outside these slates, including Steve Poizner, who took the most votes any independent candidate has received in a statewide race in California’s history. The organization also raised over $3 million to support its candidates.
Looking ahead to 2020, Unite America Executive Director Nick Troiano says the organization "is expanding our work to significantly scale investment and accelerate support in the democracy reform movement at-large –– including both campaigns to unrig our political system and candidates who put country over party (Democrats, Republicans, and independents).
The group has also called on presidential candidates to pick a running mate across the aisle to form a “Unity Ticket.” Voters interested in signing the petition for a unity ticket in 2020 can do so here.
“If President Trump is re-elected or if the Democrats win back the White House, then what? There is no way that either party working alone can heal our country," writes Unite America's Nick Troiano and Charles Wheelan.
More and more independent candidates are also seeing the vast dissatisfaction with the two-party duopoly and are running in local, state, and federal elections. The hurdle remains high for these candidates, but Unite America offers a platform and network that can help raise awareness, support, and funding for these candidates that didn’t exist until its launch.
To learn more about Unite America and get updates on its activities, visit its website here.
About the Author
Shawn is an election reform expert and National Editor of IVN.us. He studied history and philosophy at the University of North Texas. He joined the IVN team in 2012.